North Korean demands for large amounts of energy aid bedeviled negotiators trying to reach a deal on dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear programs, as plodding negotiations were nearing a breaking point in their fourth day, Sunday.
Envoys at the six-nation talks in Beijing have shown rising frustration at North Korea’s intransigence, saying negotiations over the past two days were hanging on a single issue.
Japan’s Kenichiro Sasae said the sole sticking point was how much energy assistance North Korea should be given in return for taking steps to disarm.
“North Korea has excessive expectations on energy aid,” Sasae told reporters before Sunday’s session. “This is the problem, and unless they change their thinking, an agreement will be difficult.”
After a series of one-on-one meetings, all six chief delegates gathered for a joint session but adjourned after only 40 minutes. With signs growing of a possible deadlock, China urged the envoys to continue talking over dinner to overcome the impasse, a Japanese official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the ongoing diplomacy.
“Things are moving in an intense and urgent manner,” a South Korean official said on condition of anonymity due to the continuing talks.
Earlier Sunday, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov, lowered expectations of a breakthrough, saying consensus on how much energy to provide North Korea may be unattainable.
“I don’t think that we can resolve the issue of specific numbers or specific amounts during these talks,” Losyukov said after a meeting with his South Korean counterpart.
Losyukov also said the six parties may not agree sufficiently to issue a joint statement.
It was unclear how much energy the North was demanding, with reports varying from 2 million kilowatts of electricity to 2 million tons of heavy fuel oil.
But the North’s demand appeared also to have caused a schism among other participants, with Japan refusing to chip in until the issue of its citizens abducted by North Korea is resolved.
South Korean envoy Chun Yung-woo stressed the burden of energy aid should be shared, amid reports that Seoul may foot the entire bill.
“Even if we want to do it alone, other countries won’t allow us to do that,” he said. Chun also denied the North demanded 2 million kilowatts of electricity.
Negotiators hoped to get the North to take the first concrete steps toward dismantling its nuclear programs since talks began in 2003. That task was made more urgent after Pyongyang detonated a nuclear device in October.
A rough outline of a deal was reached 18 months ago: In return for giving up its nuclear programs, North Korea would receive energy assistance for its listless economy and guarantees that its security would not be undermined.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill refused to indicate which issue was dragging out the negotiations. But he suggested the envoys should try to bypass the sticking point, leaving it for follow-up talks.
“We’ve got this one issue, and we’ve got to wrap this up,” Hill told reporters Sunday. He reiterated that the dispute centered on a single paragraph in a draft agreement first put together by China.
Hill said his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye Gwan had told him at their Sunday meeting that he was “taking some ideas and thinking about them” to work around the problem.
This round of talks started amid optimism after the North Korean and U.S. envoys held an unusual meeting in Germany last month and reportedly reached an unpublicized understanding.
A newspaper linked to the Pyongyang government said Sunday that the U.S. had agreed at those talks to lift restrictions on a Macau bank where the North’s government had accounts within 30 days, the issue that deadlocked the last round of nuclear talks. In return, the North would take first steps to disarm in 60 days, the Japan-based Choson Sinbo said, citing an unnamed source.